EL PASO, Texas - Former County Commissioner Betti Flores testified in federal court on Monday that Luther Jones promised her campaign donations in exchange for her vote on issues important to him.
Flores, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to trading votes for cash and later received an undisclosed plea deal, said Jones offered his political support if she voted yes on a multi-million dollar contract with a company Jones was working with.
Private company Altep hired Jones in 2004 to take care of the proposal for a potential contract with the county. Altep wanted to digitize the paper records in the District Clerk's office. Then-District Clerk Gilbert Sanchez is accused of conspiring with Jones to steer Altep's contract in late 2003 through 2004.
Sanchez and Jones are being tried in federal court on two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and deprivation of honest services.
On Monday, Prosecutors played an hourlong audio recording of the June 7, 2004, commissioners court meeting in which a potential contract with Altep was discussed. Sanchez asked commissioners during the meeting to give him the power to negotiate a contract with Altep, a company that would digitize county records. He said Altep was not only the lowest bidder, but they were local and the most qualified to digitize the records.
Sanchez asked the court to consider issuing up to $10 million in debt to fund the contract. This is highly unusual. In local government, departments do not ask for issuance of debt. That is handled by the purchasing department and the county auditor through a documented, lengthy process.
County Auditor Ed Dion testified on Monday that Sanchez had left them out of the proposal process and did not follow proper protocol because the County Purchasing Department is the only one that can receive bids, evaluate them and submit them to commissioners court.
Dion said he had tried to contact Sanchez days before the meeting because he had seen the item and was confused. He never reached Sanchez, and only spoke to his assistant, Fernando Parra, who did not 'provide sufficient answers'. "I was all in the dark on this issue", said Dion.
Sanchez, in that meeting, is heard saying eight proposals had come through, but that he and a committee of three judges had narrowed it down to Altep. The district judges, according to the recordings, were Bonnie Rangel, Robert Anchondo, and Patrick Garcia.
Also on the tape, Purchasing Manager Joe Lopez expresses concern to the commissioners at the time, saying he has no documentation to prove how Sanchez narrowed down the proposals. Sanchez also is heard saying he did not compare how much other counties in Texas paid for similar services Altep offered.
During cross examination, the defense argued Sanchez, at the urging of the state, and in an effort to keep his campaign promises, was trying to modernize the office. They portrayed Sanchez as a sort of forward-thinker, using unconventional methods in an effort to be more effective. They also implied that the feuding over protocol was politically motivated.
"There are a lot of political conflicts at the courthouse. There are a lot of turf wars, right?" defense lawyer Stephen Peters asked Dion.
Dion answered, "I try to stay out of the politics."
Commissioners unanimously rejected Altep's proposal at the June 7, 2004, meeting.
Flores also testified Jones had offered her money in exchange for her support in increasing the pay for Fernando Parra, who at that time was described as Sanchez's 'right hand man'.
Jurors also heard audio recordings from the Feb. 2, 2004, commissioners court meeting when Sanchez asked for a raise for his assistant, Fernando Parra. Sanchez said Parra had been doing lots of work preserving county records, including helping to rewrite the county's software system, and deserved a pay grade. The county has categories of pay based upon employees' duties. Sanchez wanted Parra's position to be re-categorized, or upgraded, so Parra could get a significant pay raise - about 29 percent. Parra's salary was in the low-to-mid $50,000 range.
Dion testified the county's human resources director at the time and he did not believe Parra merited the raise Sanchez advocated for him at that time.
Both those county officials told commissioners at that meeting that other employees doing similar work than Parra were not getting paid as much as Sanchez asked, they could not support the pay hike. Commissioners tabled the item for two weeks and when it appeared on the agenda again, Sanchez no longer asked for a paygrade increase, he asked for a supplement to Parra's salary.
A supplement, unlike a paygrade, does not change the position of the employee. It only adds 20 percent to his/her pay based upon specific or new tasks the employee has taken on. In this case, according to Sanchez, Parra was spending time managing county records, and thus Sanchez asked permission to use money from a state fund meant for District Clerks, to supplement Parra's salary.
That specific state fund, though, could only be used for equipment and management of the records. The only way it could be used for salaries, was if the person receiving income from the fund, was working in record management.
There was disagreement as to whether Parra met those qualification. Sanchez said he did. The court seemed weary, but ultimately voted yes.
The trial began on Friday with testimony from Roger Miller, president of Altep.
The company hired Jones as counsel in an effort to obtain a contract to digitize and scan records from the district clerk's office. Prosecutors on Friday showed jurors a spreadsheet showing Altep was not the lowest bidder for the project, but it appeared to be the most qualified.The government alleges Altep was the most qualified because Sanchez and the district clerk's office worked with Altep company salesman Bud Moore to set up criteria for the county's request for proposal.
That gave Altep an advantage, according to the prosecution. Neither Miller, nor Moore have been implicated in the investigation.
Miller also told jurors that at the suggestion of Moore, he made campaign contributions to members of El Paso commissioners court at the time, including Betti Flores, Miguel Teran, Charles Scruggs and Dolores Briones.When asked by defense attorney Orlando Mondragon whether Miller ever offered Sanchez a campaign contribution, Miller said, "No."
Miller said on Friday that Sanchez never asked for a contribution either. The defense maintains when it came to the digitization project, Altep did not have a lot of interaction with Sanchez, instead communicating with Parra.
Parra was charged with child pornography after turning over his computer to the FBI as part of the investigation. He is expected on the stand in this case as a witness for the prosecution.
Prosecutors told jurors in opening statements last week that the evidence will show that in 2004, Sanchez conspired to receive bribes from Jones, including $750 and a trip to Las Vegas.
In court documents obtained by ABC-7, prosecutors explained "it is not necessary for the government to prove that the scheme actually succeeded, or that any official act was actually taken by the public official in the course of the scheme."
"What the government must prove," stated the government, "is that the defendants knowingly devised or participated in a scheme or artifice to defraud the public and the government of their right to a public official's honest services through bribes or kickbacks."
At the time of Jones' indictment, his co-counsel Steven Peters told ABC-7, "Not only is whatever (Jones) has done not illegal, it's not been against the public interest. He hasn't done anything wrong in any sense."
A federal grand jury indicted Jones and Sanchez in May 2009. They initially faced five charges, but three were dropped in October 2009 because Judge Frank Montalvo determined the statute of limitations had expired on two counts of bribery and one count of mail fraud.